Flying on an airplane is far more safe than driving a car. This is a fact and it is backed by statistics. Yet, being scared of flying is far more common than being scared of driving a car.
The same goes for people with a fear of sharks. A person has a way higher risk of getting killed by a dog than being eaten by a shark. This is also a fact and is again backed by statistics. But who would you rather cuddle: a shark or a dog?
Whatever decision you make (getting into a car/plane or cuddle a dog/shark), the risk of getting hurt only applies to yourself. You can afford to make an emotional decision and pet the dog instead of a shark, because even if it leads directly to death, it is your death and not your neighbor’s. You are accountable for your own choices, whether they are based on facts or feelings.
But what happens when we take it a step further and apply this ‘fact resistance’ and ’emotional decision making’ to topics such as vaccination or climate change? Then the risk no longer applies only to the one person with a ‘non-factual belief’ but instead the risk is imposed onto this person’s surroundings and now make up a threat to a far larger group of people than just the one person. If you choose to not get vaccinated, you contribute to the revival of deadly diseases and break down the herd immunity in a society. In these cases, it is obviously important to make a fact-based decision as opposed to a decision based on opinions and emotions.
So, why does this happen? Why are some scientific facts and statistics so difficult to convey? And how can we use this information about behavior to improve our science communication?
The Best Context Might Not Be The Correct Context
First of all, our brains like to put things into context. This is how the mind works. It takes snapshots of what we experience and it puts the snapshots together to form the convincing story called reality. If a few pieces are missing here and there (e.g. in the ears or the eyes or the memory), the brain will fill in the gaps the best it can to create a convincing perception of reality. It is not perfect, but it is good enough for the purpose.
This implies that if we learn something out of context, we are more likely to discard it further down the road. This can be one reason why stand-alone facts are so difficult to convey.
An extreme way of forcing context onto random facts is seen in people with an ability to count playing cards. They do not actually remember a long sequence of numbers and colors. They create e.g. a mental map. A story where each card represents a person, object or room, so instead of remembering 10 different cards, the person simply remembers a walking route through their house, which is much easier. Also, a walking route makes more sense in our brains than 10 random cards and this helps to remember the order of the cards.
Nothing Keeps Attention Like A Good Story
In this online era your attention is worth gold. On a daily basis you are bombarded with headlines, news, fake news, breaking news, updates, trivialities, gossip, videos, memes, gifs and photos that all fight for your attention if even for just one second. Most likely you scroll past all that, and even if you make a quick stop to check out Jennifer Aniston’s new Instagram-profile, most likely you will forget the details shortly after.
Conversely, in those brick books you read about hobbits and wizards you remember landscapes, dialogues, personal relations, conflicts and maybe you even speak Elvish fluently from memory. You remember all these details, despite them having no direct impact on your daily life (as opposed to traffic statistics). Your attention is kept for hours and hours, because it is a good story that keeps you curious on what happens next and have you feeling empathy and understanding for the characters.
The outcome of a good book has all the elements we desperately work so hard for in science communication: The attention and conviction of the audience.
Put Facts In A Good Story And Send It Off
When we as science communicators want to invite the public audience into our fascinating world of science, we must remember that stating facts alone is not enough. Facts need a vehicle to be transported into the brain and glue to stay there.
The vehicle is a good story and the glue is context.
So next time you eagerly want to convey a topic to your audience, try to wrap you data/statistics/results in a story that is relevant for the audience. A relevant story will create context, and an exciting story with suspense will keep your audience attentive.
Thank you for your attention!